How Should A Person Be (Dressed)?
The whole #menswear phenomenon is sort of stupid. That’s never stopped me from reading the blogs, trying to snipe deals on Styleforum, or lusting after a camo-Canadian tuxedo. I’ve indulged, spent a few hundred dollars on pants made of something called Cone Mills selvedge denim. I know my way around a Ludlow and a Fitzgerald. After all, there is a truth-y seduction to #menswear because you do get what you pay for, to a certain extent. (That extent stops well before $295 dopp kits, though.) Like with audio equipment or prime cuts of meat.1
No, I don’t really mind #menswear culture, and for the most part I think it’s pretty harmless. Dub monks never hurt anybody. I don’t have any problem with guys blowing half a paycheck on Chromexcel® Horween because have you seen how that shit ages? Butter.
The ugly side of the culture, to me, is typified by blogs like Fuck Yeah Menswear, which is a marriage of hip-hop culture and Sartorialist snaps. (Of course they got a book deal.) Take their last post. I actually remember seeing the original photo on the Sartorialist, and I thought it was cool. I lingered on it. That guy’s gym bag probably cost as much as a month’s rent for me - maybe more. Dude’s just walking around SoHo, in his gym clothes, nice coat, wireless noise-canceling headphones, matching New Balance sneaks. But’s an interesting outfit. Stylish, strangely compelling.
The off the cuff pseudo-rap lyrics FYM adds are detestable, I think, for a few reasons. They’re all, basically, swag swag swag, idiom, class signifiers, I’m a nice white guy, isn’t this funny, ha ha, ha ha, swag. Now, the triumphalism of rap is, to me at least, a clear facade through which the weakness of the rapper is usually pretty clear. Rap works through a carefully-balanced dramatic irony: blowing money fast gets you nowhere quick, basically. Everyone knows that. These guys with jesus pieces end up in pieces, or they end up poor, or both. Alternately, rap is a lot like ancient poetry, like prayer. Rappers, (and athletes, among others) basically sacrifice themselves on behalf of the culture, and these songs are their glory. There’s something there that’s beautiful and transcendent, even — especially — in a song like “Grindin’” or the sudden worn down destruction of a running back like a Shaun Alexander.
Fuck Yeah Menswear colonizes rap and removes all its poetry, all its irony. FYM sucks all the gravity out of the music and culture. Fuck Yeah Menswear takes the “black” out of “Black Republican”. It takes the “n//s” out of “N//s in Paris”. It is “R Money”. It’s sad and a little evil at the same time.
And that aspect of #menswear culture, with its constant SWAG and CRISPY and FUCKS WIT and etc. is pretty ugly to me. I mean, to put it clearly, why wouldn’t a bunch of rich white guys want to hear music almost exclusively about degrading women, iced out Audemars, and wearing Margiela in a Murciélago. It is irony free lifestyle music for the rich or rich-aspirant, which I sort of think makes up most ardent #menswear enthusiasts. Even my sort of personal hero, Kanye West, as Jordan Sargent pointed out last night on Twitter, pays explicit homage to American Psycho at the beginning of the “Love Lockdown” video.
The essentially post-Kanyeezian luxury rap trend has coincided in perfect felicity with the empty and acquisitive 1%er type of culture, a sad irony. It’s like skipping to the end of Huck Finn and walking away with the idea that it’s good to re-enslave your friends so you can go on a fun trip down a river. There’s a whole journey, a whole other side, to the Caligulan excess of rap that seems to be totally lost on a lot of people — critics and proponents, both. Either way, it’s all #SWAG #SWAG #SWAG.
I’m not saying all rap should be ‘conscious’ rap, or that trap rap is bad, or anything like that. Sort of like people who eat meat but only the ethically-sourced kind (or at least would, if they could afford it), I think the spirit in which you consume rap culture matters. I am a big fan of rap music. I’m not well to do. If my life were Kanye’s discography, I’m much closer to College Dropout than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. All you can do is try to think hard about things and get on with your life, right? A lot of it is made up of tacit social agreements, or social exchanges whose characters remain obfuscated, simply because they’re either in our blind spot or we don’t really want to see them. See them.
My girlfriend thinks I’m “really into bro culture” because I watch the NFL, think Tom Haverford is the best character on Parks and Recreation, listen to Dave Matthews Band, and wish to own a cloth top Jeep. Is she right? Sort of. Again, as far as, I guess, superficial cultural signifiers go, she is. Or, more to the point, whether someone is or isn’t a part of any culture depends on the intimate relationship between their own self-conception and their notion of that culture. It’s easy to slip into caricature or offensiveness if one, the other, or both are too far off from would reasonably called ‘accurate’. It’s a difficult sort of equation to balance.
There’s a string ball knot of lines connecting the different states of relating to culture. You can be in it (even if you’re not an obvious candidate), try to be in that culture, knowingly or not make fun of the culture, or just making a hash of the whole thing. I don’t think, for instance, How To Dress Well (né Tom Krell) always does a great job of it.
Sometimes it seems like Krell could be doing something like whiteface minstrelsy thing. Covering “I Wish”, one of R. Kelly’s more poignant songs, which starts,
Rollin’ through the hood just stopped to say what’s up
And let you know your baby boy ain’t doing so tough
is a challenging move. Ending it by crooning, “Come on and braid my hair / Come on and braid my hair / Come ooooon and braid my hair / Come on and braid myyyyy hair / Myyyy hair.” Is even tougher. The fact that Krell ultimately concludes by saying, “That song’s too real, though.” makes the performance - what? An even more ambiguous act.
The whole act gives me pause because, even though I think R. Kelly is amazing and great at making music, I also think people (a lot of white people) tend to lionize him for being “crazy” and making “dirty fuck jams” and so on. You know, othering the hell out of him, basically.
It’s a fraught time for this stuff, honestly. What with Mitt Romney saying he feels like he’d be better off if he were born Mexican. And #menswear bloggers appropriating every bit of rap culture that’s not nailed down. How To Dress Well seems to fit quite snugly into the “PBRnB” moniker, popularized by Sean Fennessy: “this is rhythm and blues by or for hipsters”. And, I suppose the implication is that “hipsters” = “white hipsters” for the most part.
There just seems to be this dichotomy (definitely false) where “hipster” means “liberal white person” means “non-racist” and non-hipster means “everyone else” means “potentially racist”. I know that sounds wrong, but there’s a reason why things like historical guides to “hipster racism” or even a (potentially facetious) Vincent Gallo stud service. It’s why Stuff White People Like became the Cathy comic strip of institutionalized liberal racism. Clearly, I mean, clearly white people occupying other cultures are almost implicitly acting in a bad manner, so the whole white liberal hipster identity, the one that purifies radio R&B, is racist. Can you visit other cultures? Certainly. But you shouldn’t just take them over, throw out the stuff you don’t like, the stuff that’s too ‘ethnic’, and call it a day. PBRnB is sort of evil seeming to me.
These are all the different things I think about when I listen to How To Dress Well.
The thing is, while I feel comfortable saying Krell is a hipster, I don’t think he’s racist at all. He’s an artist, borrowing from a variety of traditions, the prevalent one being R&B and the less apparent ones being Grouper-like tape loop collage, noise, art rock, ambient electronic music, rap, pop, metal — everything and anything, like basically every good musician does.
The story of Krell’s artistic genesis feels true:
During the summer of 2009, Krell, then living in Brooklyn, began obsessively listening to “Right Side of My Brain,” The-Dream’s lush ode to romantic delirium from his Love vs. Money LP, and it spurred a shift in How to Dress Well. “I remember sitting in my living room, sweating and singing, and really feeling like I had made a new step,” he says of recording the buoyant, fuzzed-out pop track “Kidnap City” (which he’d later remake and include as a bonus track on the Love Remains vinyl). “I’m just a tall, skinny Jewish guy, but I’m singing R&B,” he says, reflecting on the epiphany. “And to do that and be, like, Yeah, that’s what feels right, took a long time.”
There’s a lot of “Right Side Of My Brain” in How To Dress Well — the distorted vocals, sad-but-ecstatic bounce, the overwhelming dolor.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Krell’s view of himself and how he fits into the culture is even more clear.
I encountered this with a lot of German journalists who say, “So you’re the only R&B singer who sings about anything other than sex and money”. Well that’s racist. That’s wrong, and just really close minded. I tend to be moved to write songs because I encounter an affect which is ambiguous or complicated or stresses me out, or perplexes me in some way. And sex and drugs, I just don’t have any problems with them. They’re both really great.*
Still, that’s not to say that Krell is somehow musically better than Terius Nash or Miguel or Chris Brown or Kandi or K Michelle. It’s not to assert that Krell’s music is better because it’s more ‘experimental’ or radio-antagonistic (despite his personal goals to the contrary). It’s just to say that Krell — unlike, seemingly, some fans and critics — tries to engage honestly with his influences and make the music he wants to make. He’s not just biting a style, riding a chill wave, exploiting a set of signifiers, or erasing an history. I think, but only Krell himself knows in his heart, that he’s acting in good faith, so it would be extremely cynical as a fan or critic to lionize him for making a ‘better’ version of R&B, which just equates to being more artful or less black.
I remember feeling quite upset the first time heard How To Dress Well. It was the beginning of 2011, and I was in the big Barnes & Noble in Herald Square (third floor, bathrooms and literature). I was listening to Love Remains and thinking, How could this be on all those year end lists? You know, it sounds terrible. All that clipping and distortion hurts your ears, especially if you’re listening some place like a Barnes & Noble with earbuds stuck inside your head, as I am wont to do. And they’re really good earbuds, so they were really good at reproducing the head-splitting dissonance Krell had made.
Even though more contained music — compressed, tight, bass-heavy rap or, alternately, rock music with some air in it — sounds best in my earbuds, I am used to listening to just about every genre with them. So it was basically a singular experience listening to Krell’s falsetto-driven songs with their trebly, bare instrumentation (mixed extremely poorly with a scuzzy, lo- fi presentation). I mean, it sounded worse than your average Blu mixtape does these days. I came to the conclusion that the album should be heard, if at all, from a set of speakers at quite a low volume. Hopefully, as you’re falling asleep. (Or, hopelessly, as you’re slitting your wrists.)
In this way, Love Remains is something of an aggressive, antagonist musical statement. Mark Richardson, writing the definitive, to me, take on Love Remains, says,
The distortion is at places so harsh, it’s hard not to wonder why Krell doesn’t do away with it. But with the sex and romantic yearning removed, the tension between the ethereal and prayerful mood comes from the quality of the recording, the way the music seems to be breaking apart as you are listening to it. How to Dress Well is to my mind the biggest breakthrough in home-recorded lo-fi in years.
“Biggest breakthrough”! This, from a certifiable home-recording lo-fi freak.
If you take as a premise that Love Remains gets a lot of its charge from its aggressively scuzzy sound doing war with Krell’s angelic vocals, then Total Loss is another antagonistic statement, but of an entirely different kind. Much of the sonic dissonance is gone. In fact, Krell’s production veers dangerously close to Clams Casino territory sometimes, which is a good look but not exactly a breakthrough at this point. Clams’s influence is especially strong on “Set It Right”, which will surely be touched on by many as the album’s stand-out track. But the song’s major impact doesn’t hit until the beat quells itself to soft piano chords and Krell lists those lost souls he misses.
So much of Total Loss is about just that, but it’s a loss that’s evoked as a searching. You can’t look for something that’s present, after all. Thus: loss. The thing is, philosophically and physically, just about nothing in life is truly present. We’re all missing each other, either through glancing proximity or just via garbled meaning. Cell phones, talking on them, that is, figure prominently in the lyrics of Total Loss - an antiquated notion, especially for someone, like Krell, who’s younger than thirty. But even though the album sounds gorgeous and expansive, it does have that receiver-to-the-ear intimacy that you get from late night talks.
I remember being laid up with pneumonia for a month when I was, I don’t even remember, maybe fifteen or sixteen. I re-read Lord of the Rings and talked to this a girl for hours, basically doing one by day and the other by night. I have no detailed recollection of either, really, but I remember the memory of it, the experience’s impression, and it was one of my life’s formative ones. Carving out the shape of my own psyche, night after night, in pitch black conversation with a voice whose body I’d only see a handful of times afterward. It was strange, but utterly essential.
Total Loss operates within a similar continuum of memory’s memory - the shape left on your soul by an experience you hardly remember. Musically, it’s touched all over by partial-recollection. The melody of “Say My Name”, along with its lyrical string of questions, sounds strikingly (improbably) similar to Vanessa William’s “Colors of the Wind”. “Running Back” lays out the picked-clean, perfectly preserved skeleton of a Michael Jackson song. “Struggle”, coming two-thirds of the way through Total Loss, cannibalizes the album’s very own first track.
Throughout, Total Loss remains utterly, almost transcendentally beautiful to listen to. Its instrumentation varies from piano to samples to guitar, but all stay within a crystalline structure that’s only occasionally — and quite consciously — abraded by background noise or sonic fuzz. It’s instantly recognizable as the continuation of Love Remains, yet also quite a departure from it.
Tom Krell is a fine name, but his musical moniker is just perfect. It’s not that How To Dress Well is particularly stylish music. It’s that, I think, one of the ideas behind it all is that music is just emotion wearing garments made of sound. How To Dress Well is less about fashion than it is about the ontological project of presentation, something in common with fashion, yet from an ends perspective, not a means one.
Sometimes writers or interviewers make a bit of a fuss about Krell’s philosophy background. Now, given that I studied philosophy and have a master’s, you’d think I’d be really into this, too. I mean, his DePaul student biography even says he’s into late Wittgenstein, which is basically my favorite thing in the world to read. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of philosophical import to, or at least overlap from Krell’s stated interests with, How To Dress Well. Krell’s music is thoughtful, but I personally find nothing from the tradition of German idealism from Kant to Schiller to Hegel in it. Rather, How To Dress Well is scrupulously ambiguous. It’s music whose hooks, influences, sounds, themes — everything — are almost immediately recognizable, yet they’re reconfigured in ways that mystify rather than clarify. They present without being present. It’s not exactly rigorous and systematic, like Kant, though I suppose listening to its dark search for transcendence is something like slogging through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
Ultimately, How To Dress Well does everything right that a more vulgar #menswear culture does wrong. It’s just a happy accident that the two have similar names, but they hopefully they make for an illuminating contrast. How To Dress Well honors the tradition from which it comes while adding to it. It is searching, searing music. It’s serious without being at all ponderous. It makes you feel better about life, while constantly indicating that there’s little to feel good about. How To Dress Well offers nothing in the way of #menswear advice, and that’s also some of the highest praise I can give it.
What’s really unfortunate is not consumer culture, necessarily. It’s that basically every music album, regardless of quality, is ‘worth’ $9.99. Every book, $12.99. I’d rather pay $50 for a book by Heather Christle or a CD by Kanye West and then spend the dollar or so that that Malcolm Gladwell thing is worth to me. ↩
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